Sal has been sleeping "on the roof" of his tenement. We know about the accessibility of this space from songs like "Up on the Roof." This vantage point gives young Sal views of the sunset, but also canoodling couples. Like Carlos and Yolanda, who like to dance to old songs. We presume he sees them through a window across the street.
Then he mentions St. Lazarus, the one his mother was told by the santero, the fortune teller back in Puerto Rico, was the only force who could save him from his violent fate. Lazarus, of course, is the man Jesus brought back from the dead, so he must have something to do with changing one's fate and getting second chances.
Sal is aware that he will have to grow up at some point-- "Well, these jitterbug days I'm living/ They won't last..."-- but the question is how. He seems to enjoy the romance of the couples...and the "sound of a cappella groups" Simon spoke of in "Late in the Evening" and which provides the background for this number. He calls this a "satin summer night," a reference to the thickness of the humid air, but also its sultry sensuality.
For now, he seems to be drawn to a girl named Bernadette: "I can feel the fire in her eyes." She returns his attentions: "Be my special one/ I seen you move in from across the street/ I love the way you run."
Bernadette and Yolanda revel in the freedom and confidence they feel in their adopted country: "No more baby talk/ This is the island of Nueva York." Also, the privacy afforded by the rooftops.
So his route to manhood seems set, and attractive at that. Find a girl, settle down, etc.
But here comes another option. It is offered by one Hernandez, who goes by "Umbrella Man," after his scepter of choice. He belittles the romance of the couples, and calls such goals small: "You little ghetto weeds/ I feel like killin' you."
Umbrella Man says there is more going on here. There is war being waged among a dozen rival gangs, he explains, listing them off. Each is centered around a different ethnicity and neighborhood, each eager to expand its territory... by violence if necessary.
Involvement in protecting oneself and the neighborhood, he feels, is inevitable: "Your future's locked in mine." He is a member of the local Puerto Rican gang, the Vampires. These other gangs look down on them--"They treat you like you're piss"-- and it's only manly to respond with a return challenge: "From the heart of the barrio, now, my brother/ We tell [them]: "Suck on this."
Umbrella Man is full of racial slurs, and he uses one on Sal to provoke a reaction, adding, "You get no respect here unless/ You belong to a bopping gang." And that adjective, we assume, means a gang willing to "bop" the other gangs a solid blow.
In conclusion, Hernandez offers Sal a choice: "You either belong, or you get hurt/ Or you can buy some protection from me." Buy protection "from" him in both senses of the word, that is-- either the protection from outsiders will come from him... or the danger he needs protecting from will.
And Umbrella Man has one more selling point-- he will fight on Sal's behalf! "If someone's got to die/ I believe in an eye for an eye/ What do you believe in, Salvador Agron?" He closes his pitch by referring to Sal as both "Mr. Agron" and "Senor Agron" to drive home that this is a choice of ethnic and adult pride.
Sal, young though he may be, realizes that Umbrella Man offers a false choice. He has already seen another way-- the way of Carlos and Yolanda, the way it could be with Bernadette.
What does he believe in? He already knows: "I believe I'm in the power of St. Lazarus." And he begs the Umbrella Man not to ruin his bliss: "Don't tear apart/ This satin summer night."
Marc Anthony sings Sal's part here on the album, and played young Sal in the original production. Anthony is equally adept at acting (the movie Big Night and others) and singing, and has been a force in entertainment since the 1980s, singing on some Menudo albums. In 1999, his English-language hit "I Need to Know" hit #3, and his fourth album won a Grammy. He is the best-selling salsa singer... ever.
Oh, and he's been married to Jennifer Lopez since 2004 (although as of this writing, divorce papers have been filed).
Next song: Bernadette